It was hard.
Hard for Sandy to watch as Pitch was weakened so much that he was dragged back to the shadows by the fearlings.
They called him the Nightmare King, but he was no absolute ruler. Fearlings were impossible to control. They were a wild, feral pack. You could try and tame them, but it was impossible. Any semblance of control was tenuous. Once weakness was sensed, once hunger set in, they'd look to their leader with hungry eyes in a flash.
The fearlings fed off Pitch's own fear until they were strong enough to venture out once more, with Pitch loosely at the reins.
The other guardians just didn't know what kind of relationship Sandy and the shadow-master had before any of them were even born; before the general of the golden army was possessed; before he tried to harpoon the man who was once a second father to his daughter and cause him to crash land his shooting starship on Earth.
And now, Sandy had to watch as the others all enjoyed the defeat of a once proud general, terrified as he stumbled and was whisked away like a scrap of paper in the wind.
If only Pitch could realize his full potential…
Sandy was solemn at the celebration the Guardians held at the North Pole. Everyone was toasting Jack in his new Guardian status. Tooth was cooing over his teeth, and Bunny was making himself comfortable with his big feet up on the table.
They were victorious, but Sandy wasn’t happy.
He sat quiet as usual, feet nowhere near the floor and head in hands, giving a forced smirk to Jack as he gloated about their victory. The spirit happily dicussed about how awesome he was going to make next winter for the kids.
Sandy’s mind was elsewhere.
When Pitch had shot him with that fear-infected arrow, it was the first time he’d tried to absorb him and not just convert his dream sands. They’d danced around each other for hundreds of years since both were awoken there on Earth. Their constant battle of light and dark had always been a balancing act more than a war or a fight for supremacy. Their bickering was teasing rivalry, and sometimes it was downright flirting.
But Pitch did not know how to properly express things of the heart. Hard to do that when your heart is a hardened cinder of fearlings.
Sandy sighed sadly at that thought.
Sandy knew how lonely Pitch was, especially as the ages wore on into the current modern era and his influence lessened. His loneliness increased as no one could see him anymore, and he felt outcast by the increasing number of guardians for human children. It was like everything was working against him.
Sandy had tried to explain and reason, with both Pitch and the Guardians, but they just didn’t understand the positive niche Pitch filled - or his necessity to remain strong to keep the fearlings in check and prevent them from growing hungry to escape Earth and roam the galaxy. Pitch’s loneliness turned to madness as the fearlings grew restless under his own weakness – their anxiety creating a feedback loop. They took more and more of his rational mind like a cancer. They manipulated him with whispers and doubts.
The empty cup of eggnog in Sandman's hands was refilled by a passing elf, not before he stole some sips for himself. Sandy gave him a distant glance as his thoughts of Pitch continued amongst the boisterious party.
Pitch had been driven insane, leading to the overzealous takeover attempt and tides of nightmare sand that forced the Guardians to band together to take him down those past few nights.
Sandy had been dispersed into the black sand, and everyone thought him dead.
There amongst the dark grains, conshiousness still very much aware....Sandy had felt, for the first time in a long time, close to him. He felt an echo of Kozmotis in there, numb and alone in the darkness. Locked away without a key.
Sandy never lost hope.
That one day he could reach him.
When the joy of the children helped wish Sandy back together again, Sandy could sense even more that the time might finally be now. He was sure he had a way...
It was a few days later –
Sandy sensed the fearlings had quieted down, and most importantly, he’d all but lost sense of Pitch. It meant he was weaker than ever, maybe the fearling hold on his mind was the same.
His stardust-fueled heart beat fast with excited trepidation as the little dream weaver approached the portal to Pitch’s lair. The rustic old bed frame and intimidating hole in the ground appeared to Pitch when needed. The portal could appear for Sandy as he knew Pitch's rhythms as well as his own. The entrance had no specific place, in the same way that Bunnymund’s portals could appear in any ground and lead to his warren.
He alighted on the obsidian ground of Pitch’s rhelm in a fluff of golden sand, looking about with a furrowed brow for signs of fearlings trying anything funny. He could hear them in the shadows, like coiled rattlesnakes. They knew right now he was strong, and they were very weak. There would be no fights picked tonight.
Sandy brandished a gold whip at a brave shadow that circled around him at a distance. He scrunched up his face, speaking to the fearling in ancient symbols, asking like you might a dog,
< Where is your master? >
The dark animal growled and slunk back. Hissing, the shadows spoke like a hive mind back at him.
LEAVE THIS PLACE STAR, YOUR LIGHT OFFENDS US.
They were no help. Sandy puffed his cheeks in disgust and put away his weapons. He’d find Pitch himself.
The dusty realm was like a maze. It was once a gleaming cavern of onyx and black diamonds, curling wrought iron and stained glass. But as Pitch sank into the depths of desperation, so too did his realm fall into disrepair - empty cages, disjointed stairways, a shell of the planet depicting his believers…
It didn’t have to be like this.
The Sandman floated silently, wandering the dark corridors. He finally got an inkling of Pitch, then followed the trail to an open room with an arched stone ceiling. Shadows scattered like cockroaches, and out of the inky parting sea Pitch appeared. He was limp on a stone slab with a thin black pillow, his back facing Sandy. While Sandy could sense he was alive, he still ran over to him like he might be dead. His heart was heavy. ‘You deserve so much better than this, Kozmotis,’ He thought.
He opened his little hand and looked to his palm where there was a pile of black sand.
He’d saved it when he came back from being merged. It was no ordinary converted dreamsand - he’d infused it with powerful memories, and since it was made from sand that used to be a part of them both, it should - in theory - be able to penetrate the fearling defenses like a virus does to a cell. At least, that was Sandy's plan.
Sandy closed his hand and floated around to Pitch’s front, rolling him over a bit so he could see his face. Pitch did not react to being moved besides a mild whimper like he was exhausted mentally and physically. He was basically catatonic. His shadow cloak was ripped, his skin marred under the tears with dried dark blood. The fearlings had really dug into him.
Concentrate. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t get up too many hopes…
He smoothed his small hand over the Nightmare King’s face, the infused dream sand sinking into his eyes and skin.
Sandy sat and waited.
There was a sudden jolt. Pitch cried out, hands flying up to clutch at his face as he convulsed.
“AAGGHhhh Ahhhh!” He curled up on himself. He did not seem aware Sandy was even there yet.
Sandy watched, patient and silent as ever, but his expression was pained.
The terrible wailing continued, every screech causing a twinge of guilt and sadness to the Sandman.
Please work, please do anything.
When he couldn’t take it any more Sandy hugged his arms around the suffering man, lying down with him and snugging into his front. He pressed an ear to his chest.
“STOP, NO, WHAT DID YOU DO OLD MAN?!” Pitch snarled, now aware of the Sandman’s presence. It was clear he was disoriented and had no strength to push him away, despite trying. “Get out of here! GET OUT!” He writhed. His tone grew increasingly desperate and weak as his vigor was sapped with the display. It was obvious he didn’t really want to be alone, but he was too prideful to be seen like this. If there was anyone in the world he could call a friend, it would be Sandy.
“What more do you want from me? You won, dammit you WON!” His tone rose briefly in frustrated anger and self pity, but he fell limp with nothing more to give.
Fearlings started to creep back towards them from all sides like a rising tide. Sandy hit them away with bursts of his brightest sand. They eventually scattered, unable to take it.
He listened with an ear to Pitch's chest.
There was a sound of buckling, like something old and in disrepair creaking under its own effort as it tried to move.
“AAHHggggnn!” Pitch wailed with renewed pain, curling up and hugging around Sanderson. He shivered and his fingers dug into the sand that comprised Sandy’s suit. Had he not been in so much pain he’d be enjoying the close proximity of having someone actually touch him...but at the very least, Sandy’s warm presence was the only thing allowing him to bear what he was feeling.
He didn’t understand, why - how did he hurt so much? What had Sandy done to him? His face was soon buried into the smaller man’s fluffy hair. He could smell him, he smelled like the ocean and starlight. In his pained delirium he got a sudden flash, like seeing something through his own eyes, but he couldn’t remember having seen it.
'You smell like fresh starlight,'
a voice said to a smiling Sandy, whose hair was longer, skin a little brighter; he was perhaps a little shorter…
No, that was his voice.
“…S…Sanderson?” Pitch whispered, his voice not sure, like it wasn’t coming from him.
Sandy felt his heart leap and he looked up at Pitch, their eyes meeting. He’d not heard him call him that since…well since…
There was another sound, like glass creaking and straining.
'I love it when you smirk like that - '
'Don’t be nervous, she’ll love you. How could she not? '
'Sanderson – you are one of the most important people in my life –'
“AAHGgg ahhh ahh!” The Nightmare King convulsed violently and felt something inside him crack. It wasn’t the shatter Sandy was listening for, but a distinct CHINK like a fissure through the thickest stone.
Pitch heard a little voice in his head. This one wasn’t a distant memory, it was here and now. It was Sandy speaking to him directly, though it was like hearing a voice through hourglass sands and white noise.
Pitch was breathing hard, grey skin damp with sweat. It was weird for him to feel so...warm. He wasn’t sure WHAT he was feeling.
Feeling? No, that was the sensation - feeling. Guilt, joy, hope. Like breaking out of a fog.
“Sandman, what did you do…?” He rasped, trying to push him away. Why was looking at him causing so much pain in his chest. Bleary eyed, Pitch blinked at the symbols flying over the small man’s head. Sandy was smiling and petting his little hands at his chest where it was exposed through his cloak’s neckline.
“You know I can’t understand you when you stutter,” Pitch murmured wearily.
He closed his eyes in exhaustion and promptly passed out.